Ashes of time: memories of covering peace talks, war, and people on the ground

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(With apologies to Wong Kar Wai)

The sound of a revolutionary song Ang Masa being whistled, and the rustle of grass, and leaves against my legs broke the silence of a skeletal forest somewhere in Negros island as I made my way out of a guerilla bivouac.

I was panting like a dog in heat as we approached a steep cornfield. The sun was beating down on us, harshly, and the fruiting pakol (wild seeded banana) leaves offered little refuge nor did the coffee trees stripped of most of its branches, “the masa use it for firewood,” she said as she maintained her steady climb. It was two in the afternoon. We were walking for four hours already.

I followed the sound of her whistling.

When I crested the hill after what seemed like eternity, we paused to catch my breath. She pointed east. “Somewhere there is where my first unit had an encounter with soldiers; one comrade was killed. A week before that he told me he wanted to submit a proposal to the collective.” By “proposal,” she meant that “he” would have to seek permission from their partymates so he could court her.

Red fighters of the New People's Army celebrate the founding of the Communist Party of the Philippines somewhere in Negros. Photo taken in the 1990s by Julius D. Mariveles
Red fighters of the New People’s Army celebrate the founding of the Communist Party of the Philippines somewhere in Negros. Photo taken in the 1990s by Julius D. Mariveles

She looked at me with squinted eyes. “Should we go now?” I said yes. She picked up my backpack, adjusted her M1 Garand strap, and off she went again down the trail that headed to the barrio proper where I was to ride the bus to Bacolod City.

She was Ka (Comrade) Dyna, the medical officer of a New People’s Army squad operating in central Negros island. It was 1994. I was 19, and she was in her 20s. Pretty, of solid build with a charming smile, and sure footing, not surprising given that she was a tumandok (a native of the place) who knows her way around the hills, forests, rivers, and swamps, “and the ashes of departure,” one of the guerrillas whom Jose Ma. Sison romanticized in his poem “The Guerilla Is Like A Poet.”

“Someone will take you to the barrio proper, he is a masa,” she said as we walked past houses of chopped bamboo, thatched roofs, smoking charcoal pits, barefoot kids, and people returning from or going to their baul (farmlots).

We heard the sound of tricycles, and bus horns already. We stopped under a bamboo grove. I held the rifle as she took off my backpack then we exchanged, shook hands, and said goodbye. “Ka (I forgot the name) is going to take you to the bus stop,” she said, pointing to a man behind me. I said thank you again, and she left.

That was the last time I saw her. She was pregnant.

The masa who took me to the village proper had thickly-calloused hands, sunbaked skin, and a stocky build like those in the Cubist paintings of artist Noel Etabag.

He took my backpack and we walked about half a kilometer to the bus stop. People gathered outside their homes or in sari-sari stores selling cheap cola in dusty bottles, and siok tong (that’s cheap, local Jagermeister), stared at us with half surprised, half amused expressions on their faces. I am not sure why. Maybe it was funny for them to see a fat, fair-skinned city boy with muddied pants sweating like a pig or those were expressions of concern, and worry.

I don’t know.

“Salamat gid, Ka,” I whispered to the man as he gave me a quick hug. He smelled of heat. I waved goodbye as the driver honked his horn, a signal that we were leaving.

Years later, I covered the brain autopsy of a man allegedly tortured to death by soldiers. The skin of his head was hanging like a flap on his face but he seemed to resemble that man who brought me to the bus.

I could not be sure.

I was 19 when I started covering the peace talks between the government, and (for brevity) the communist rebels. I was a cub reporter for dyAF Radio Veritas, a Church-run radio station in Negros Occidental. I was the youngest reporter, I assumed, assigned to cover the Capitol beat, a prime issue area for reporters in my city.

The talks resumed under El Tabako, then President Fidel Ramos after these were suspended during his predecessor’s term after soldiers, and cops mowed down protesting farmers in what is now known as the Mendiola Massacre. “It could have been prevented but the directive was to find a precondition for the movement to disengage from the talks,” a former cadre assigned to the CPP’s national peasant secretariat told me several years ago.

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